Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Drama, Romance
Run Time: 1 hour, 52 minutes, Rated R
Starring: Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Olga Kurylenko, Javier Bardem
Written and Directed by Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life, The Thin Red Line, Days of Heaven)
To the Wonder (opening today) will be remembered as an important film, not necessarily because of its own merits, but rather because it was the last film to ever be reviewed by the late, great Roger Ebert.
It's the latest film from director Terrence Malick, whose previous film, The Tree of Life, polarized audiences and critics alike. That film couldn't have been told on a wider scope, as it began with the beginning of time and spanned all of eternity. Malick's body of work always tends to be more interested in the bigger picture; whereas most films center on their subjects, his characters seem soft and blurry as if the focus is on something far beyond them, or in the peripheral. To the Wonder, I suspect, is like The Tree of Life in that it isn't for everyone and that it remains an ambitious examination of life. But being a bit more restrained and having including the normal staples audiences have come to expect - like a plot and dramatic elements - Malick has crafted a much better film, one that proves the old theory that less is more.
To the Wonder is a dreamy, visual masterpiece that is more akin to a poem than a traditional dramatic film. Olga Kurylenko (also starring in the sci-fi blockbuster, Oblivion, opening today as well) is Marina, a bouncy, spirited soul and mother to a 10 year old daughter (Tatiana Chiline). She falls in love with Neil (Ben Affleck) and follows him from the wonder of Paris back to the less exciting open fields of Oklahoma. Marina is not happy in her new home and her unhappiness leads her down a path of eventual self-restoration.
Kurylenko's performance would be a great one, if only she was playing a character. In Malick's world, there are no characters really, just bodies representing certain things. The always floating camera whisks around, over and underneath our subjects, never letting us know them, really, or understand them. The characters don't talk all that much, and most of the movie's words are given as emphatic voice-over, as if what we are seeing is more of a series of after-thoughts than in-the-now happenings. If a memory could be made into a film, it would look like To the Wonder.
It's when we are introduced to a humble, lonely priest (Javier Bardem), when the movie's motives become a bit clearer. This is all weighty stuff, but we are left with themes that are deeply religious, spiritual and intellectual. And moving.
At one point, Marina describes herself as two people: One who is filled with love of God and the other who is constantly feeling pulled back to Earth. Life is that frustrating middle-ground. Sin, as the film suggests, may only be outward acts of human disappointment, over the fact that God wont allow us to ascend.
You can't help but feel that Malick himself feels stuck as a filmmaker: Stuck between true freedom of expression and the limitations of creating a dramatic film in need of distribution. It must be annoying, the fact that audience's expect movies to have certain elements, such as plot, characters, conflict and resolution. This film does have all of those things, although they are not the focus and seem included out of necessity.
But by loosely grazing his artistic and personal vision to these grounded principles, he elevates To the Wonder to great heights. I'm not sure why, or how, to otherwise explain how this move was able to pull me in and affect me, where The Tree of Life left me cold and uncaring. But the enchanting mood of Malick's latest gem just goes to prove that - not unlike how love is described in the film - movies themselves may just be waiting for transformation into something higher. Malick may be on to something here. To the Wonder is a film that wants desperately to be more than a film, and at times succeeds.
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